Louis Bayard
Louis Bayard
Louis Bayard Louis Bayard
Novels

Of Pearls and Swine
New York Times, January 10, 2016

This recap contains spoilers for Sunday's episode of "Downton Abbey."

O, Abbots. She walks in beauty, like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies. And all that's best of dark and bright meets in her aspect and her eyes.

I'm referring, of course, to Golden Empress, that gorgeous 500-pound hunk of pig-flesh who became, I believe, the first member of the Downton Abbey estate to win a beauty contest. Long overdue, I say. Meanwhile, in other surprising developments, tenant farmers prove very nearly interchangeable; aristos turn out to be rather bad at child-minding; and an underbutler shows that he is, in his down time, a superbowler.

About that butler: Was I alone in pitying poor vampiric Barrow? Every friendly-or-otherwise overture he makes to Andy is rebuffed. ("I can, uh, show you the woods, if you like. No? How about I help you rewind the clocks? You sure? O.K. then, what say we check out Lady Mary's pigs?") He's getting no love from his supervisor. ("When do you need me, Mr. Carson?" "When indeed?") And his efforts at proactive job-hunting are rewarded with veiled insults and gay-baiting: "You're a delicate-looking fellow, aren't you?"

Now it's well known that Barrow is the Luckiest Bastard on Television. Remember how he won over Earl G with his cricket prowess? And somehow got rewarded for kidnapping Isis? And managed to save Edith from the fire? Each and every time his evil ways threaten to undo him, he finds a way to crawl back into the Crawleys' good graces.

So when Marigold went missing at the local fat stock show (normally a "pretty low key" affair, to hear Earl Grantham tell it), I fully expected Barrow would find a way to drag her golden locks to safety.

Instead, it's left to the hog farmer, Tim Drewe, to figure out that his missus—the girl's onetime adoptive mum—has run off with the child. He rushes back to the farm and finds Marigold cradled in Mrs. Drewe's lap. I confess that my heart did a little lurch, wondering if the child was dead, but then I remembered that, even alive, Marigold is not exactly a live wire.

Sure enough, Mrs. Drewe has only rescued the girl because "They were paying her no attention, none at all" and "No one was looking after her, not one of them," and yes, Mrs. Drewe, you're right, and no, Mrs. Drewe, it's not the thing to steal kids who aren't exactly legally yours.

This all culminates in one of those reifications of the class system that Baron Fellowes specializes in.

"I'll start looking for another tenancy in the morning," announces Drewe.

"God bless you, Drewe," says Earl G. "God bless you and your family."

"The same to you, my lord. The very same to you."

That's how you fold your cards when you're a Fellowes-shire farmer. No fuss, no rancor. None of that Daisy-ish railing against "the system." Shake hands and walk away, even if you have been there since before Waterloo.

At any rate, dear sweet (boring) Mr. Bates appears to have an ideal site for relocation, but dear evil Barrow is left swinging on the vine, just when he normally hauls himself to safety, and this isn't the only instance of thwarted narrative.

Take the Edith plotline. (Did you think I was going to add "please"?) Baron F makes a point of reminding us that Mary is still in the dark about Edith's love child, and he goes to great lengths to put the two sisters in London at the same time and even sends them home on the same train. Surely, one thinks, he's laying the groundwork for a teary Edith confession, but nothing of the sort happens, and Mary is no wiser at episode's end than at the beginning. (She is, however, wondering who will drive her home.)

And now consider the arrested plot development surrounding that middle-aged lovebird Carson. The Crawleys want him to celebrate his nuptials somewhere abovestairs. "You've worked at this house, man and boy, for half a century," says Mary. "If you've no right to be married here, who does?"

Only Mrs. Hughes sees things differently. "It's where we work, but it's not who we are," she says.

"I want my own wedding to be done in my own way."

When Carson grumbles that it's his wedding, too, the future Mrs. C snaps: "We'll be doing it your way for the next 30 years, I know that well enough, but the wedding day is mine."

Mary is having none of that. "You leave Mrs. Hughes to me," she says, confidently. And what a delightful chill ran down my back at the thought of those two formidable ladies duking it out ... except they don't.

Perhaps that's being saved for a future episode. Or perhaps Mary is too distracted by the fertility struggles of Anna, who learns that she's suffering from cervical incompetence. (If there's ever a medical term that needed a do-over.) One quite large stitch, we're told, should do the trick, and I confess I am rooting for a Bates kid only because I want to see Joanne Froggatt get through an entire episode of "Downton Abbey" without leaking around the eyes. I don't deny that she drips as simply and eloquently as Julianne Moore—yes, I'm going for the gold standard—but I simply can't stomach one more scene in which Anna accuses her husband of desperately wanting biological children, and he says (in effect) "No, I'm happy as I am," and she says (in effect) "See? You're unhappy!"

There's no winning for poor Mr. Bates, and it makes me long for the dark brooding character of Season 1 whose every limping step trailed mystery. Five years in, the mysteries have all been cleared away, and Bates is the guy who gets to say, "There there. It'll be all right."

Best scene: We'll break it down to a single beat: the moment when Mrs. Drewe asks her husband if he's angry with her. He gazes at her, and then, as the understanding of his own ruin washes over him, something softens behind his eyes. "No, my darling," he croons. "I'm not angry at all." Kudos to Andrew Scarborough and Emma Lowndes, between them, for deepening the "Downton" register into tragedy.

Best line: Violet's trumpet was muted tonight, but Edith had a nicely tart response to Mary's speculations about Rose's pregnancy: "As usual, you add two and two and make 53." Shockingly, though, the funniest line came when Bates urged his wife to "try to put your feet up" during her impending trip to London, and Anna, clearly envisioning the stirrups that awaited her in Dr. Ryder's office, murmured: "Yes, I'll be putting my feet up."

This week's drinking game: A swig of Harpoon oyster stout for every time someone utters the word "pig." As in "my goddaughter, the pig-breeder" or "George was aching to see the pigs" or Mary's straight-faced "Let me discuss it with our pigman." (I am the pigman ... they are the pigmen. ...)

I Google so you don't have to: "Wigs on the green" is an antique Irish phrase meaning a fight or brawl. It dates from the days when men actually wore perukes and the like, and now you will have to admit that some small part of you wishes Isobel and Violet really would tear off each other's wigs, "Valley of the Dolls"-style.

Department of other stuff:

  • Why in the name of all that's woolly would Tim Drewe bring his wife to the fat stock show? Was that his idea of managing the situation?

  • Why am I unable to say "fat stock show" without giggling?

  • It's always nice to have that minx Lady Rosamund on hand. And always exciting when a child on "Downton Abbey" gets to speak. Well done, Georgie!

  • The next time he argues with Edith, Mr. Skinner should explain that "in a bull ring with Attila the Hun" is a mixed metaphor.

  • That Fearful Dutch Thingamajig is the name of my next rock band.

  • In response to last week's recap, several learned Abbots (as if there were any other kind) have reminded me that senior female domestics regularly took the title of "Mrs." regardless of whether they were married. This has made me question the marital status of other purported matrons. What of Mrs. Dash? What of Mrs. Butterworth?

So speak up, Abbots. Will Edith ever come clean with Mary? Does Clarkson really not know how to use an X-ray machine? Do the Crawleys really not know how to cope with cut fingers? Does Mrs. Hughes really believe that walking on your own is "very liberating"? And what is Mrs. Patmore doing with all that horseradish?

May your newspapers be ever ironed. ...



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Louis Bayard